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California Baptist wrestling accepts conditional membership status from Big 12 Conference

by Andrew Shortall, California Baptist

RIVERSIDE – California Baptist University wrestling has received a letter of intent from the Big 12 Conference regarding affiliate membership starting in 2022-23.

The Big 12 is currently home to Air Force, Fresno State, Iowa State, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, South Dakota State, Utah Valley, West Virginia and Wyoming. The Lancers would give the conference 12 teams in 2022-23, as Fresno State is set to discontinue its program at the end of this season.

"California Baptist University and Lancers Wrestling are looking forward to our future membership with the Big 12," CBU Interim Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman said. "As one of the premiere athletic conferences in the country, the Big 12 brings a long history of success in the sport of wrestling. We are looking forward to our new friendships and rivalries in the Big 12 as we continue to build our wrestling program into a nationally recognized competitor. This marks the start of another exciting chapter in the history of California Baptist University and Lancers Athletics."

The Big 12 has a rich history that is unmatched with any other league in the country with current members claiming 49 team national championships and 314 individual championships. Oklahoma State leads the sport with 34 national titles and 142 individual crowns while Iowa State owns eight team and 69 individual championships, and Oklahoma has seven team and 67 individual.

Seven of the conference's 12 teams are currently receiving Top 25 votes, with five being ranked in the latest poll: No. 5 Oklahoma State, No. 13 Iowa State, No. 16 Northern Iowa, No. 17 Northern Colorado, No. 22 Oklahoma and Wyoming and West Virginia.

The approval of CBU to join the Big 12 is conditioned on the program's successful completion of its NCAA Division I four-year reclassification process. The Lancers are in the midst of the third year of the transition period with an anticipated final approval in July 2022. The affiliate membership will be effective for the 2022-23 academic year. CBU will join the other Big 12 wrestling members in a regular-season scheduling alliance and will compete for the league's postseason title and automatic qualification into the NCAA championships.

"CBU continues to achieve sustained growth in academic programming, enrollment, physical plant expansion, fiscal resource development, and athletic attainment. Affiliating with the prestigious Big 12 in wrestling is an honor that aligns with our pursuit of excellence," CBU President Dr. Ronald L. Ellis said.

The Big 12 Wrestling Championship has been hosted in Tulsa, Okla., at the BOK Center since 2017. The Big 12 and the Tulsa Sports Commission previously announced a partnership to host the championship at BOK Center through 2024.

The Lancers established a strong reputation for themselves in the NCAA before making the move to Division I in 2018-19. CBU finished third in the D-II standings in its final two years (2017-18) after a sixth-place performance in 2016.

Over those five D-II years, the Lancers qualified 25 wrestlers for the Division II Championships, produced 15 All-Americans and three division champions. CBU also won the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title in 2016 and 2018 and two regional crowns (2017-18) over that span.

CBU has gotten off to a strong start in Division I. In their first two transition seasons, the Lancers have produced eight All-Americans at the National Collegiate Open, including the 2019 heavyweight champion.

"It is a great privilege to be conditionally accepted into the Big 12 Conference," Coach Lennie Zalesky said. "Historically, the Big 12 has a long tradition of being one of the best DI wrestling conferences in the nation. Today, the Big 12 is competitive with the best in the nation, and the conference has some of the best wrestlers and teams in the nation. We look forward to the challenge of competing with these teams. The West Coast, and particularly California, is host to many good and talented high school wrestlers, and I sincerely believe that CBU will compete well with these teams in the relatively near future."

Zalesky, a legend in the wrestling world in his own right, has led CBU's program as head coach since 2011. He was named the 2017 NCAA Division II Coach of the Year, and has been inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, California Wrestling Hall of Fame and Alaska Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Prior to CBU, Zalesky coached at UC Davis before the program was dropped prior to the 2010-11 season. In nine seasons in Davis, he coached numerous Pac-10 placers, four conference champions and had 27 athletes qualify for the NCAA Championships. Perhaps his best season came in 2007 when he was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

Derek Moore, CBU's assistant coach, was a big reason for the Aggies' success in 2007. He won the first NCAA Division I championship in the history of the UC Davis Athletic program and was named that year's Most Outstanding Wrestler, which gave it a top-22 finish as a team.

As a wrestler, Zalesky was a three-time All-American wrestler at Iowa. During his time there, he helped the Hawkeyes to four straight national championships, and he notched a record of 73-2-1 in his last two seasons. He was twice the national runner-up at 142 pounds and won three Big Ten titles.